Bald Eagles and waterfalls at Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska.
On Wednesday, June 11th, we took a full day boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park with Kenai Fjords Tours. It was another spectacular day.
The geology was very impressive.
The first of our three murrelets of the day: Marbled Murrelets.
We saw many Horned Puffins, but
Tufted Puffins were by far the most common.Here’s a short video of (mostly) Tufted Puffins at Beehive Rock.
We also saw several Rhinoceros Auklets.
The whales put on quite a show. I didn’t think I had any great photos of orcas, but a few looked okay as I reviewed them on the camera. Somehow I erased them later. I had a 2 gig compact flash card malfunction while in Denali, so I was trying to save space on my remaining cards by erasing pictures that were obviously no good, and I guess I went too far. I also had a few photos of Ancient Murrelets that were somehow lost, so maybe it was another card malfunction rather than overzealous erasing.
The humpback whales were very close to the boat.
Look, he has a nose on his back!
Dall’s Porpoises rode the bow for a few minutes. A short video here.
This black bear was eating roses. At times, he used his tongue like a giraffe to strip them from the plant. He must have one tough tongue not to mind the prickles on the stem.
A Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel was briefly seen, though I didn’t see it. We did have good looks at this Leach’s Storm-Petrel on the water and in flight.
A classic storm-petrel pose and a perfect rump pattern for the species.
The same bird a few frames later shows no dark central divide in the white rump like in the picture above.
As we got closer to the Aialik Glacier, there were floating chunks of ice in the water.
Some had Black-legged Kittiwakes sitting on them.
The small chunks (under two meters in size) are known as brash ice. This is often where Kittlitz’s Murrelets are found.
Our first view.
A second bird, looking like some biker "bat out of hell" insignia.
A third bird, showing white in the trailing edge of the secondaries. Chris Benesh said that this is a good field mark not shown in the field guides.
This ice was a bit more than brash.
The Aialik Glacier. Kayakers in the foreground.
We saw several small chunks calve off.
It is called a tidewater glacier, since it comes all of the way down to the ocean.
The scale is impossible to depict in a small photograph, but it was truly impressive.
Dave Johnson, who we saw in Nome and Barrow with another group, took some great shots of harbor seals on the ice. We didn’t have views of them that were nearly as good. While you’re there, his photo stream has many wonderful shots of Alaskan species touched on herein, as well as many other subjects.
This Black Oystercatcher allowed for a close approach by the boat on our return to the dock.
The following morning we spent some time in the spruce forest around Seward. We found this Chestnut-backed Chickadee, along with several Townsend’s Warblers, a couple of Pine Grosbeaks, and two White-winged Crossbills that perched briefly on a distant spruce.
As we were watching the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, this Boreal Chickadee showed itself too.
Another view of Denali on our flight to Barrow on Friday, June 13.
The welcome sign on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, framed by two bowhead whale skulls.
The palms of Barrow. These are made from bowhead whale baleen.
At the top of the list for Barrow were the Spectacled Eiders (above) and the Steller’s Eiders (below). These can be hard to find, so we were thrilled to find them both on our first outing. These relatively close digi-scopes of the Spectacled were from our second day in Barrow, June 14. Short video here.
From field guide photos, I was led to believe that these were the lesser of the four eider species. That is far from the truth. I really liked their alert pose (more below on why they might want to be alert), and they are just as stunning as the King, Spectacled, and Common Eiders.
Courting Semipalmated Sandpipers
Long-tailed Ducks courting. Short video here.
Pectoral Sandpipers stole the show. The inflated pecs, the flight displays, the fearlessness, and calling, "doo doo doo doo doo doo." They’re always a nice find in CA, but I’ll never think of them the same way.
On our first eve, we took a guided tour (required) out to Point Barrow. We hoped for polar bears, and they had been seen within two days of our visit, but we didn’t see them. These Black Guillemots were new for us, however.
The jaegers were an incredible spectacle. In Nome it had been mostly Long-tailed Jaegers, with a few Parasitic Jaegers. We had all three species in Barrow, but the Pomarine Jaegers were by far the most common.
Someone coined the term "Darth Jaeger" for these dark Pomarine Jaegers. To a lemming or small bird, that is certainly how they must seem.
A light-morph Pomarine Jaeger.
A dark Parasitic Jaeger
Looking out over the ice. There were incredible blues and oranges, and things appeared to move. We were looking for movement (polar bears), and chunks of ice shimmered in front of use–especially through a spotting scope. On our last evening, several of us were convinced that we saw blue tarps, or tents, or some such out on the ice. It must have been the odd refraction of the atmosphere above the shimmering ice. Either that, or what we began to call the "ice gypsies."
Here is some digi-scoped video of the ice.
On our last morning, I got up a couple of hours early and scoped the ice for polar bears. Chris said that he had seen them in the past on the ice not far from the hotel. No joy this morning.
I’m sure nobody has ever gotten the idea before to take their picture at midnight. Even though we already knew that the sun didn’t go down, it was odd to see it.
A lemming in his ice fortress.
The ground was flooded, so he took shelter where he could from the jaegers and Snowy Owls, among others. Chris said this was a good lemming year compared to others he had seen over the past 15 years. We saw many running around, and two fighting–or if they weren’t fighting…
Red Phalaropes courting.
A female Red Phalarope (they are the bright ones).
The bizarre polygons of water on the tundra as seen from above (Google Earth). Some of the water bodies are many acres in size.
We had all of our meals at Pepe’s, which was attached to the Top of the World, where we stayed. Pepe’s had a pretty diverse selection, including Garden Burgers, and a very interesting atmosphere.
I’ve never seen a soda machine like this one at Top of the World (video)!
Convenient shopping on your court date? Photo by Kimya.
"The place where we hunt Snowy Owls." An odd thing to highlight, methinks. Barrow is an odd mix. There is much to see, and the eiders and shorebirds, ice views and tundra are beyond great. The fact that there was trash EVERYWHERE was not too cool. For a "dry town," there sure were a lot of beer cans as well as bottles of harder stuff. We often found ourselves describing the location of a bird with something like, "just left of the beer can."
Photo by Kimya
We also found a dead female Steller’s Eider (presumably shot and left) and a dead male Long-tailed Duck (confirmed to have been shot and left). Random shooting is a big problem for birds breeding on the tundra, especially the threatened Steller’s and Spectacled Eiders, and aside for the immensity of the landscape, there is nowhere to hide.
The view of Denali from the air on our flight back to Anchorage. We were very close, and the pilot turned the plane for optimum viewing.
On our last afternoon (and by myself in the morning–trying to tempt that charging moose or bear), a few of us walked around a nice spruce forest and bog near the hotel looking for Spruce Grouse–one hoped for species that eluded us. There were a few singing Alder Flycatchers, but most notable were the mosquitoes.
Photo by Kimya. Mosquitoes on David’s shoulder.
Even with Deet and my rain shell and hood, they were really bad. I didn’t get bitten too many times, but a couple did get in my eyes and stick to my eyeball. They weren’t too bad if you walked at a good clip, but slowing down to look for birds invited them into your face. A mosquito net would have been welcome. Aside from this, our last afternoon and morning in Anchorage, they were not a factor during the trip. If it had been warmer or we had gone much later, I’m sure it would have been much worse.
A far more welcome insect in Anchorage–A four-spotted skimmer: Alaska’s official insect.
On Monday, June 16th, we headed home. We were in Alaska for nineteen days, though two were more or less travel days. It was a great trip, and I’d love to go back.
Of all of the places to visit, Alaska was first on my list (Where to now?). I had been reading about the locations we visited for a few years, so there were no big surprises. I knew I’d be shocked by the immensity of the landscapes, the spectacular mountain range just behind another. And I was.
One thing that didn’t come up too much was the sense of impending doom about the environment that often hovers over my head–especially in regard to climate change. While we were there, everything seemed so vibrant and alive, that it’s hard to imagine it being under threat. One thing that struck me was when I noticed some Coho salmon in a creek near Seward. There were quite a few in the water, and to me, who had never been at that location before, it was impressive. Then Chris said that he’d never seen so few (it has been a VERY bad year for Pacific salmon). It brings to mind the concept of the shifting baseline. Each generation has a normalized view of what they are familiar with. Will people be equally happy as we were when only a dozen Least Auklets show up at St. Paul? They will still be fun to watch. Is that any different that reading about the declines of Steller’s sea lions and Northern fur seals, but enjoying the ones that we saw. Is that going to happen? Will we, as a culture, let it happen? Is there any way to stop it from happening?
As an aside–and to illustrate just how little I understand about climate change, despite reading several books on the subject in the past two to three years–there was more ice at Barrow than in a typical year and there have been recent hard winters at the Pribilofs, with ice connecting it to the mainland in winter (a rare event)–so much so that a red fox made it to St. Paul by crossing the ice. Despite this, I’ve heard recent reports that this may be the first summer in recorded history with an ice-free Arctic Ocean. So much for starting out the season with a surplus of ice.
It was a big decision to go with a group, as opposed to arranging the trip on our own, and something we’ve never done before (at least not on this scale). In part, I wanted to see what a top-of-the-line guided birding tour was like. And why not now, when we can afford it? Nothing is getting any cheaper. Also, I didn’t have time to plan for the trip this year (we made arrangements in the fall of 2007), and I didn’t want to put it off any longer. My grandfather always wanted to visit Alaska. He finally did, but only after he’d had a couple of small strokes and could not fully enjoy it.
I think we did remarkably well at finding target species, and I ended up with 28 lifers (4 or 5 more than I figured I’d see) despite not seeing a single vagrant at St. Paul.
It has taken me over a month to get through all of the pictures and prepare a narrative for the trip–two to three times longer than I thought I’d take. Now I need to dig back into a couple of volunteer projects and get them done this summer, or I’ll just need to change my name and go into hiding.
What else can I say? In some senses, the trip already seems like an eternity ago. I always have the feeling before a big trip that it is a life-changing event, which takes on life and death significance. But then we get back, go to work, have a lot to catch up on, and you wonder: did you even really go? But it is a lot of fun to relive it through the pictures, and writing the blog, if nothing else, facilitates that. Now I only have four more days worth of checklists to enter into eBird, and I’ll be caught up!
Well, that’s the fourth and final installment on Alaska 2008.